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25 More Interesting Concepts to Help You Make Sense of the World

What does Atwood’s Duck do? How can an Accusations Audit help me negotiate? And what makes the Black Ball Hypothesis so terrifying? I’ve put together another collection of 25 interesting concepts and ideas to help you make sense of the world. As with Volume One, we’re going to dive into ideas on critical thinking and problem-solving, practical philosophy and psychology, decision-making and storytelling. I’ll link to relevant posts, newsletters and other information if you want to find out more. Let’s understand the world and human nature a little bit better, one idea at a time.

1. Chesterton’s Fence

“Leave gates as you found them,” is an unwritten rule when travelling the remote Australian Outback. It’s also a good illustration of Chesterton’s Fence. Coined by English writer G. K. Chesterton, it’s a cautioning principle for progressive reformers which says: Before tearing down a fence, that is reforming something, we should find out why it was set up in the first place. Only when we’ve learned about the original rationale behind a certain rule, law or institution can we know whether it needs to be reformed, maintained, or torn down. If you’re interested, I’ve written in more detail about Chesterton’s Fence.

2. Cargo Cults

Essentially, a Cargo Cult is a staunch belief that something can be achieved by merely mimicking behaviour without understanding how things actually work. During World War II, when the US military set up bases on islands in the South Pacific, the local villagers were amazed by the cargo planes bringing in goods from the air. They witnessed a seemingly unlimited supply of food and material even though they didn’t know where it came from.

Eventually, the Americans left and so did the goods. Eager to have them return, the villagers thought of ways to attract the cargo again. So they built makeshift runways, towers and planes and mimicked the marching of soldiers in the hopes that the goods would come in again. Sounds silly? Which Cargo Cults are we worshipping every day?

3. Hedonic Treadmill

This interesting concept suggests that more money, more friends, or more wealth don’t necessarily make us happier. Instead, the theory of the Hedonic Treadmill argues that we all have a subjective baseline of well-being to which we inevitably return after the successful pursuit of new pleasures. Once we’ve achieved a goal, we desire something else, hence the image of a treadmill. On the upside, the reverse is also supposed to be true. We adapt to negative life events rather quickly and return to our original levels of happiness.

4. The Buttered Cat Paradox

Cats always land on their feet and a falling toast always lands on the buttered side. Humanity has been pondering those two observations for years. The Buttered Cat Paradox combines both into one mind-boggling paradox: What would happen if you strapped a buttered toast to a cat and threw it off a table?

The creator of this thought experiment, John Frazee, suggested that “the two will hover, spinning, inches above the ground”. In case you were hoping for a more serious interesting concept, I’ve also written about other mind-bending paradoxes.

5. St. George in Retirement Syndrome

A pathological state in which someone fights a righteous battle but after winning they end up getting embroiled in ever smaller and smaller ones. Unable to pause or stop, the noble crusaders eventually swing their swords against thin air. St. George in Retirement Syndrome can be traced back to Australian author Kenny Minogue. In his book The Liberal Mind, he compared Liberalism to an aging St. George who doesn’t know when it’s time to retire. In the original legend, St. George slays a dragon that terrorises a village. He rescues the princess and good wins over evil. If you want to learn more about it, check out my essay on St George in Retirement Syndrome: How to Know When to Quit?

6. Havel’s Greengrocer

The greengrocer is an analogy former Czech dissident and statesman Vaclav Havel used in his famous essay The Power of the Powerless, which you’ll find on my Reading List.

Written in Czechoslovakia of the Cold War era, Havel explores the thought process of a shopkeeper who is told to display the sign Workers of the world, unite! in his shop window. Havel’s greengrocer has two choices: Either he declines and gets branded as treacherous. Or he does put it up, thereby submitting himself to the regime and showing everyone that he is compliant.

As a recurring motif, Havel’s Greengrocer illustrates the dynamic between the individual and the system in a totalitarian state. As the writer notes, the greengrocer must “live within a lie”. It’s not necessary that he believes what the sign says. What matters is that he acts as if he did. It also doesn’t matter what the sign says, what matters is the signalling of loyalty to the regime. Ultimately, his compliance confirms the system and makes the greengrocer a part of it.

7. The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

In what field are you an expert? Medicine, logistics, skateboarding? Now imagine you read a story in the newspaper about this very topic. The more you read the more you realise the journalist has absolutely no clue whatsoever about what he’s writing. Still in disbelief, you turn the page to read about another topic you’re not familiar with. By this point, you’ve forgotten about all the mistakes in the earlier article. So you continue to read the newspaper as if all the rest of it was true and accurate.

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect was coined by author Michael Crichton and originates from a conversation he had with physicist Murray Gell-Mann. We should note though: Finding one inaccurate story in a newspaper doesn’t mean the others are false, too, or vice versa. But it can serve as an indicator of a journalist’s or paper’s general reliability. If you happen to be an expert on Atwood’s Duck please do let me know if I got it wrong.

8. Atwood’s Duck

Atwood’s Duck is a cunning maneuver to keep overeager managers from making unnecessary changes to a product. Rumour has it that some supervisors and executives are dying to add value to any project — even if there’s no value to add. The trick is to present them with a decoy that they can criticise so the rest of the project can remain unaltered.

It originated in programming and was coined when an artist in charge of designing the queen in the classic computer game of Battle Chess had an idea. In order to outsmart his producer, he gave the queen an animated pet duck as a sidekick. The manager liked all the designs, except for that silly bird of course: “Just get rid of the duck”. At least he got a sense of having done something productive.

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In case you’re interested, I wrote about Atwood’s Duck in more depth. It’s also reminiscent of Bikeshedding, a phenomenon about meetings and how people tend to lose themselves in trivialities.

9. The Cobra Effect

The Cobra Effect is a reminder that even the most well-intended interventions can have unintended negative consequences. During the time Britain ruled India, New Delhi was plagued by a large population of venomous cobras. Trying to get a hold of the situation, the British offered a reward for every killed snake. It worked for a while until the locals started to breed cobras so they could kill them and get the bounty. So the unsuccessful program was ended, which caused the cobra breeders to free their now useless animals. Guess what the result was.

10. The Cassandra Predicament

In Greek mythology, Cassandra had the gift of prophecy. Whatever future developments she predicted eventually came to pass. There was only one problem: Nobody ever believed her. Today, the Cassandra Predicament has become a metaphor for people who saw Black Swans coming but weren’t taken seriously. It’s quite common, which is why I foresee that one day you will find yourself in a Cassandra situation. Luckily, I’ve written about 5+2 strategies for effective decision-making advice so you at least have a chance of being heard.

11. Steelmanning

Steelmanning (aka the Straw Man Argument) is a method that comes from the world of debating. The idea is to further your own cause by helping your counterpart to build the best possible version of their argument. This probably sounds counterintuitive. But it’s an invaluable strategy if you’re interested in discovering the truth instead of scoring cheap points in a debate. As we’ve discussed in Volume 1 of interesting concepts, it’s certainly more effective than strawmanning, which is misrepresenting what other people have to say.

12. Schelling Point

Schelling Point (aka Focal Point) is an interesting concept from Game Theory. It postulates that people can make shared decisions without communicating with each other. Put differently, even without interacting with each other, people tend to find a common solution by default. A popular example is a question about a mystery meeting in your country or city.

Imagine you were to meet with a friend somewhere in your country. You don’t know when, you don’t know where exactly. If you’re living in the US you would likely pick Central Station or The Empire State Building in New York City on New Year’s Eve. If you’re both living in Berlin, Germany you probably go with the World Time Clock at Alexanderplatz, perhaps on German Unity Day at noon. It’s not foolproof but an interesting concept that shows how shared social norms can make successful cooperation more likely.

13. The Black Ball Hypothesis

Are there any downsides to progress, innovation and new technologies? The Black Ball Hypothesis (aka Vulnerable World Hypothesis) suggests that one day we might find out the hard way. It conceptualises human endeavour and discovery as “a process of pulling balls out of a giant urn”.

Now, what if the urn contained a few metaphorical black balls; namely a discovery, idea or technology that almost certainly leads to the destruction of the world as we know it? One of the most terrifying scenarios is probably the idea of “easy nukes”. Imagine a technology that would allow anyone to assemble a functioning atomic bomb in their basement, made out of parts you get in every supermarket.

14. Zeigarnik Effect

This interesting concept suggests that interrupted activities are easier to remember than completed ones. The Zeigarnik Effect is named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who once sat in a Berlin cafe in the 1920s. She noticed that the waiter could recall orders more easily if they were still being prepared.

She conducted a series of experiments that established the effect. Even though it has not always been replicated successfully, we’ve all experienced similar phenomena. Think of the unique language of film and how cliffhangers make you excited for the next episode. The need for closure is just a very powerful o–

15. Mill’s Trident

Mill’s Trident suggests that “in any argument, there are only three possibilities (being wrong, being partially wrong, or being wholly correct), and every possibility is improved or strengthened by freedom of speech and inquiry”. It was coined by free speech lawyer Greg Lukianof who uses it to illustrate an observation by John Stuart Mill. Is it the most powerful of arguments for freedom of speech? I’ve answered this question in an essay about Mill’s Trident.

16. Chmess

Chmess is a term coined by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his essay of the same name. It’s also a board game of his own invention. “Chmess,” he writes, “is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one”. Dennett argues that many modern philosophical endeavours are just as pointless as writing scientific papers about this new game nobody plays. No doubt, it can be done. But is it meaningful work to be doing? I’ve tried to solve this conundrum by consolidating it with David Graeber’s concept of bullshit jobs.

17. Reward Prediction Error

Reward Prediction Errors can happen in two ways. Either we expect a better reward than we eventually receive for something we do, which leads to disappointment. Or we anticipate a worse reward than we end up getting, which leads to a nice little dopamine kick. Depending on the outcome, we tend to avoid repeating certain activities or try to replicate the good feelings they created.

As neuroscientist Andrew Huberman suggests, we should keep that in mind the next time we’re inclined to reward someone for a negative comment online. On a more positive note, you’re probably expecting to learn about 25 interesting concepts in this post. How thrilled will you be when you get to the end and realise there’s a bonus idea?

18. The Method of loci

How good is your ability to memorise your shopping list? If it’s not that great, you might be able to vastly improve it by employing the Method of loci. It works by imagining a place such as a park and associating the items you’d like to remember with locations (Latin: loci) in that environment.

Now walk through your imaginary world, place your items in memorable locations and have them interact with the environment. Once you’re done building, you can return to the scene at any time to recall your items. You may have heard of a more modern take on the ancient method of loci, the Mind Palace Technique, from the BBC series Sherlock.

19. Crime Pattern Theory

Crime doesn’t happen as randomly as it may seem. At least according to Crime Pattern Theory. Its proponents suggest that criminals commit crimes because their space of activity intersects with that of their victims. For example, a thief wouldn’t usually travel across the country to steal a few phones from cars parked near a local park. He’d steal them because he has the opportunity as he passes the park every day or even does some activities there. Criminologists Patricia and Paul Brantingham developed Crime Pattern Theory to explain how offenders find and choose their targets.

20. Hitchens’s Razor

Named after famous contrarian Christopher Hitchens, Hitchen’s Razor is a rule of thumb for anyone confronted with outlandish claims. It says that “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”. While the Hitch coined the term in the context of religious claims, it can certainly be applied to lots of debates nowadays. As I’ve illustrated in a previous post about debate games, the burden of proof is with the person making claims. We can also look at Hitchens’s Razor as a variation of Ockham’s Razor.

21. Othello Error

The Othello Error is committed when a person who is telling the truth is wrongly suspected of lying because he or she allegedly says or does what a liar would do. As the name suggests, it goes back to William Shakespeare’s tragic play Othello. Othello, a general of the Venitian army is led to believe that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him.

She denies and pledges her loyalty. But Othello takes her reaction as further evidence of her guilt and kills her. Tragically, Desdemona spoke the truth. Othello finds out that he was deceived and eventually kills himself. The term was coined by psychologist Paul Ekman in his book Telling Lies.

22. Brandolini’s Law

Have you ever tried to argue with a bullshitter? How did it go? Brandolini’s Law, aka the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, notes that “it takes a lot more energy to refute bullshit than to produce it”. While it’s easy to create it if one doesn’t care about the truth, it’s a lot of effort to debunk it if one does. The result is a world full of unrefuted bullshit. Seems like it’s best not to waste your energy. Though, if you absolutely must engage, try science and go with the C.R.A.P. Framework.

23. The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is a learning method developed by theoretical physicist and Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman. Rather than relying on the memorisation of facts, it promotes deep learning and simplification through teaching. The four-step method can be summarised as follows:

  1. Study a subject. Start with a blank page, write down what you already know and take it from there.
  2. Teach what you learned to someone so your knowledge and skills get challenged and questioned.
  3. Fill in the gaps of your knowledge discovered through teaching by studying up on what you missed.
  4. Refine and simplify your knowledge and skills further until you’re able to explain it to a toddler.

If you want to take a deeper dive into the method, check out my essay on the Feynman Technique 2.0. I’ve tried to improve the method by applying a few principles of teaching.

24. Accusation Audit

Accusations Audit? That’s right. An Accusation Audit is a negotiation strategy developed by former FBI negotiator Chris Voss. The idea is to anticipate any negative sentiment your counterpart might have about you. The accusations may be ridiculous, untrue and outrageous. But that doesn’t matter. The goal is to get everything on the table so you can diffuse them in advance. How? This is probably going to look as if I’m desperately trying to sell you his book. But how it is done, Voss brilliantly explains in his bestseller Never Split the Difference, which I also happened to have reviewed.

25. Survivorship Bias

Survivorship Bias

The last of our interesting concepts is a striking logical error that can lead you to the wrong conclusions. Beware of Survivorship Bias, the mistake we make when we disregard those who didn’t make it past a selection process. Instead, we turn our attention to the successful, the winners or the survivors. However, there’s much to be learned from those who didn’t make it.

A popular example goes back to World War II. The US Navy was looking to armour up their bombers. They analysed where the returned planes were hit the most so as to strengthen those areas. Until a statistician pointed out they should rather do the opposite. Upgrade the armour where the planes didn’t take hits since they were able to return to the base despite the damage. He concluded that the ones that didn’t survive must’ve been hit in more vulnerable spots.

BONUS: G.I. Joe Fallacy

Would it be ridiculous to think that reading up on fallacies and biases gives you a feeling of accomplishment? The feeling of having improved your critical thinking skills? The feeling of being better prepared for tough decisions? Unfortunately, no matter how much we know about critical thinking, we can still fall for the G.I. Joe Fallacy.

The G.I. Joe Fallacy suggests that knowing about a bias does not necessarily mean we’re able to overcome it. Mainly, there seem to be two reasons: Mere thinking about thinking may not be enough to notice a bias or we’re just too distracted to spot it in the heat of the decision-making moment.

The term itself goes back to the popular animated series of the 1908s. Each episode of G.I. Joe featured a public service announcement at the end. “Now we know,” kids rejoice each time. To be fair, though, G.I. Joe knew better: “Knowing is half the battle,” was the real sign-off.

Closing Thoughts

That’s it. That’s another 25 interesting concepts, ideas, paradoxes, effects, eponymous laws, fallacies and biases to help you make better sense of the world. If you’re interested in more interesting concepts on critical thinking, decision-making, practical philosophy and storytelling, subscribe to my weekly newsletter for 3 Ideas in 2 Minutes.

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